David Zurawik

Mosby's celebrity about more than just a big case

Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby is either a "national black hero" with a passion for justice or a self-aggrandizing opportunist shamefully playing politics in her handling of the Freddie Gray case.

That's the way the national media debate, which started May 1 with Mosby's Twitter-popping news conference on the steps of Baltimore's War Memorial, has sharply come into focus the past week.


And it has intensified to the point where media pundits are now watching and critiquing her every public move, whether standing onstage with Prince at a Baltimore concert or sitting down for an interview with the fashion and celebrity magazine Vogue.

The instant and polarizing nature of her celebrity on TV, in online news outlets and on social media is in part a product of her being at the center of a sensational case with national reverberations. But there's more to it than that, analysts say: Her status also speaks to what she has come to represent symbolically to some and the deeper currents of race, gender and power driving the conversations about her.


"Mosby entered the public conversation as a news figure very quickly, sort of coming out of nowhere," said Marc Lamont Hill, a CNN commentator and professor of African-American studies at Morehouse College. "But she immediately became a centerpiece of the conversation, not necessarily because of her actions, but what she represents to a broad range of people."

At the heart of that representation, according to Hill, is Mosby's projected stance as a prosecutor who is working "for the people" and not "with the police," as prosecutors in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., seemed to have been doing in the eyes of some.

"When she comes out on that Friday and names those charges," Hill told The Baltimore Sun, "she wasn't just pointing out the chain of criminality; she was pointing to the way in which everyday experiences in urban neighborhoods of being mistreated by police are normalized."

In doing that, he said, "Mosby isn't just herself, but she is an affirmation of a whole bunch of hope and a whole bunch of disappointment and a whole bunch of aspiration for justice."

Mosby has no shortage of admirers who have praised her in videos and social media for the very reasons cited by Hill. They range from citizens like Gilmor Homes resident Kevin Moore, who shot one of the videos showing Gray's arrest, to such Hollywood stars as Jeffrey Wright, who tweeted, "Amazing to hear a prosecuting attorney advocate forcefully on behalf of a victim of cop violence.#Progress."

But she is also coming under intense fire from such media and legal heavyweights as Megyn Kelly, an attorney who now hosts one of TV's most popular shows on Fox News, and former Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz for seeking a gag order on the case and for the severity of the charges, respectively.

Following Kelly's attack on Mosby this week, Andrew Napolitano, a former judge and now senior judicial analyst at Fox News, said, "I am now beginning to think that she may be just a two-bit political hack who happens to have gotten elected as a prosecutor."

And it's not just Fox News. She was criticized on the editorial page of The Sun for the appearance with Prince and the interview with Vogue.


The attack was even harsher in an op-ed essay in The Sun written by two former federal prosecutors who compared Mosby to Michael Nifong, the disgraced and disbarred North Carolina prosecutor who rushed to judgment in the case of three Duke University lacrosse players wrongfully charged with rape.

Steven H. Levin and Jason M. Weinstein contended that Mosby announced "sweeping charges based on faulty evidence," as she subordinated "her duty to do justice as a prosecutor to her role as a politician."

Jackie Jones, chair of the multimedia department at the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University, said she's been "seeing and hearing" a lot of commentary in that vein lately, and it concerns her.

"There's now all this parsing of whether she knows what she's doing as a lawyer. You know, 'How smart is she really?'" Jones said.

"And that's where sort of the race issue comes in, because once you start being attacked, your intelligence is the first thing to be attacked. And so it's, 'Oh, yeah, she sounds good. But is she really smart? Does she really know what she's doing? Does she know the law?'"

On Thursday, a grand jury handed up indictments against the six officers that were comparable to the ones Mosby announced May 1.


Mosby did not take questions Thursday after announcing the indictments, and calls and emails to her office Friday seeking comment for this article were not returned.

"Now, more than anything, Marilyn is a big target — she's got a big bull's-eye on her," said Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and former CEO and chairman of the NAACP. "And there are a lot of people for a lot of different reasons who just feel this is who they want to go after."

Mfume, who was a supporter in Mosby's campaign to become state's attorney, acknowledged the criticism of her. But he dismissed it as missing the larger point: the difference her words and actions made, and continue to make, in Baltimore.

"She may, as some have indicated, given them some fodder. You know, the Prince concert is what a lot of people have focused on real quick," he said. "Others have focused on the fact that her announcement, they believe, should not have said, 'I feel your pain,' or whatever it was she may have said. But she took the most volatile situation that this city has seen in 47 years and cooled it right down."

Chris Cuomo, a lawyer and former ABC News chief law and justice correspondent who now co-hosts CNN's "New Day" morning show, sees several "dynamics" at play and multiple "audiences" involved in the media debate over Mosby.

"On a very basic level, it is not unusual to see the media building someone or something up, only then to deconstruct or tear them down, and I think there's an element of that to what we're seeing with the backlash," he said.


But on a deeper level, Cuomo, who was in Baltimore to cover the civil unrest for CNN in the wake of Gray's death, sees Mosby as now working in a "crucible" of larger societal forces that all but guarantees some are not going to like what she does — no matter what she does.

"As an African-American woman, she represents positive change," he said. "However, because of that, to some in the African-American community she is also seen as having a responsibility to understand their outrage."

When Mosby said during her May 1 news conference that she heard and understood the calls for justice being sounded in the street, "That played very well with the people in Baltimore who feel the police have treated them more harshly, who feel there is inequity, who feel aggrieved," Cuomo said.

But with others, whom he characterized as "those who can't or don't want to identify with the needs of those in the inner cities," it's a very different story.

They hear her saying "I hear you; I understand you," and denounce her "for playing politics," Cuomo said.

And it is all further amped up because it takes place in a media climate steeped in "toxic partisanship."


As partisan as much of the debate might be, the media chatter around Mosby does matter, analysts say. That's because the conversation is indirectly, at least, as much about the things that Hill and Cuomo say she has come to represent as it is about her: "positive change" for African-American women and "aspiration for justice" in cities like Baltimore.

As Hill, who dubbed Mosby a "national black hero" in one of his tweets, sees it, she was "placed in the middle of a controversy and crisis where questions emerge about whether black people in this country can get justice when killed by nonblack hands."

Those questions, as they pertain to the Gray case, will ultimately be answered in a court of law — not the court of public opinion.

But until then — and probably beyond — the debate about Marilyn Mosby will continue.